'Grinding' has become a dirty word these days, but the 16-Bit RPGs of yesteryear thrived on the thrill you can only get from powering up your characters above the level curve through hard work and toil. Even now, gamers love the heartwarming satisfaction gleaned from persistent upgrade systems and completing item sets, and student developers Pixel Ferrets realised this when they set about creating their masterpiece in the making. Starting out as a humble university project, Secrets Of Grindea has evolved into a mechanically capable, visually exciting and deeply referential top-down RPG that pokes fun at traditional genre clichés and the concept of grinding at every opportunity, yet supports players with deep character development systems, a huge host of addictive distractions and cooperative support for four simultaneous heroes.
After winning the Students' Choice Award at Gotland Game Conference 2012 (which I was privileged to attend in a judicial capacity), Secrets Of Grindea outright won the Swedish Game Awards, demonstrating that Pixel Ferrets' upcoming title deserves to be taken very seriously indeed. I've recently become addicted to their pre-alpha build, and have torn myself away long enough to write about it.
Listen up, folks, because Secrets Of Grindea is set to be the most impressive indie RPG since Cthulhu Saves The World... and become one of Sweden's most valuable indie exports.
As an aspiring 'Collector,' veteran adventurers who form the elite profession in the world of Grindea (think Pokemon trainers), players will begin their epic quest in the starting town of Startington. Which sets the tone quite nicely, really. Your worth in Grindea is derived from the amount of stuff you own, and as such, each Collector sets forth with the aim of filling their inventories with thousands of items gleaned from killing monsters, fishing, digging, farming, hunting and engaging in sidequests. Though players are able to leap into a cheerfully-anarchic main quest that will last about eight to ten hours, we're encouraged to go out into the wild to collect, collect and collect some more.
Items such as pumpkins, bee stingers and carrots, either dug up or snaffled from defeated enemies, fill out an enormous encyclopaedia of phat lootz that can be used to craft new items or collectibles. Fish can be collected by participating in an enjoyable minigame. Thousands of weapons, armour sets and hats can be found to boost your character's combat prowess or visually tailor them to your specifications. Pets will accompany you through the levels, acting as a constant companion while they buff your skills. Most importantly, incredibly rare Enemy Cards provide permanent boosts to statistics and provide other gameplay benefits (such as increasing loot gravitation range), while filling out an album that will become as treasured a possession as any of your Premier League sticker books. The urge to continually acquire more stuff becomes a full-blown compulsion, and one that will potentially lead to dozens of hours of gameplay.
All of this would be pointless without strong and fun mechanics to back it up, and from a gameplay standpoint, Secrets Of Grindea impresses even at this early stage. Using shortswords, two-handed weapons, bows and spells, we're armed with an instantly-responsive and versatile arsenal to menace Gridea's monstrous denizens with. A shield allows blows to be blocked or parried, while Players can hotkey up to eight skills at once, allowing them to lay out physical attacks, spells and buffs within easy reach. Combat is fast-paced, slick and hectic; simultaneously feeling both authentically old-school and pleasingly fresh. When four heroes get involved, the scope for cooperative tactics and raids will add another dimension to the gameplay, not to mention plenty of opportunities for trading and boasting about rare items. Secrets Of Grindea promises to be an immensely enjoyable action RPG on top of a riotous collect-a-thon, meaning that less grind-inclined players can concentrate on the storyline, combat and a huge number of subquests.
A varied and frequently adorable selection of enemies contains some nods to classic games while upping the ante considerably. As an example, you'll face off against plenty of Slimes (Dragon Quest fans will be in their element here), but a massive boss version - the horrifying Giga Slime - unpredictably mutates into an enormous spinning disc or a titanic hammer to force players to switch up their strategy. Flying enemies, such as bees, can be knocked out of the air with spells or stunned with a perfectly-timed block, turning their charge into a rout.
Character development is also exceptionally robust, featuring a range of extremely potent skills and spells that can be massively upgraded through an insane number of levels. Fireballs deal out horrendous direct damage that can be charged up for extra clout, while deadly earthen spikes can be intuitively targeted for major destruction. Sword flurries and massive bashes rub shoulders with defensive shields and haste enchantments.You're free to create a burly warrior, bowslinger, cunning pure spellcaster or any mix of the three... and, naturally, kit your avatar out as you see fit. The comprehensive character editor and ridiculous number of cosmetic items see to that.
Playful humour abounds, from the antagonistic relationship between your character and his sarcastic living item bag to tongue-in-cheek references to classic RPG series. Despite the potential language barrier, Grindea's effective use of cheeky dialogue and fourth wall-breaking asides rags on practically everything we love to hate about the classics, preaching from a position of strength rather than falling prey to the same pitfalls it attempts to mock. Unlike so many parody games I could mention.
Pixel Ferrets have spent many sleepless nights cramming a huge amount of time and attention to detail into Secrets of Grindea's visuals. From the rustling of trees to flocks of birds that fly away as you approach, the 2D world feels alive and teeming with activity rather than a sterile template filled with stock enemies. Sumptuous backgrounds, detailed character sprites and a vibrant colour palette make for a visually engaging experience that pays homage to the 16-Bit style while retaining its own personality. Much like the gameplay, Grindea feels both fresh and reverential, calling the likes of Cthulhu Saves The World to mind.
Secrets Of Grindea is currently still in pre-alpha, and Pixel Ferrets have their work cut out over the coming months. The hardworking student team aims to add even more quests, minigames and features to the game before release, further bulking out what could well be one of the most impressive Swedish indie games in recent years. Considering the company they keep, that's no mean feat for a fledgling developer, and we'll be following their progress with considerable interest.
Secrets Of Grindia is slated for an early 2013/late 2012 launch on PC.